Cowboys' D dishes out punishment

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Michael Vick talked about how he needed protection from the referees for the number of hits he takes.

DeMarcus Ware could relate.

He was held, tackled and knocked down, and still he -- along with the rest of the Dallas Cowboys' defense -- stayed strong.

While the offense didn't score a touchdown for the first time since the end of the 2008 season, the defense came through Monday night in an 18-16 win over the Washington Redskins at Cowboys Stadium.

It's easy to talk about Ware and his impact Monday night, fighting for one sack, one quarterback pressure and a tackle for loss.

But don't forget the fantastic play of inside linebacker Sean Lee, who had a team-high eight tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery.

And what about Anthony Spencer? He continues to make defensive coordinator Rob Ryan look smart with his fast start to the season. Spencer had a sack and a quarterback hurry, and forced a fumble that sealed the Cowboys' win.

And how can we forget the run defense, where Kenyon Coleman, Marcus Spears, Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher and the inside linebackers are shutting down opponents?

Overall, the Cowboys' defense is playing above expectations.

"We got guys playing unselfish," Bradie James said. "Everybody is doing their job. There are so many different packages, and guys are just rising to the occasion and taking their roles to another level. You got D-Ware making plays, Spence making plays. Sean Lee is just, he is on fire right now. Me and [Keith Brooking] stopping the run, it's great. The front seven, these guys are making plays all over the place."

The other day, Ware was talking about how this might be the best defense he's played on.

Through three games, the Cowboys have an NFL-leading 13 sacks, and are ranked second against the run at 61.3 yards per game and fifth overall in total defense, allowing 288 yards per game.

Ryan is allowing his guys to blitz in a complex scheme that is taking pressure off the secondary. Talk to any defensive player, and he sings the praises of the new defensive coordinator with a mop for a hairdo. The players don't mind being challenged by Ryan, who said he wants his corners to play with courage.

No one can question the courage of corner Mike Jenkins, who is playing with a bruised shoulder that was nicked up again Monday night. Terence Newman, who needed almost two months to recover from a groin injury, played his first game, then left with an injury only to return later in the fourth quarter.

Ryan wants his players to play hard and will defend them to no end.

He made the bold move to sit the veteran Brooking for Lee, who is making plays all over the field.

In the first half, Lee picked off an underthrown ball from Rex Grossman to set up a game-tying field goal.

With the game still in doubt, it was Spencer who came off the edge with a speed rush and forced a strip-sack of Grossman.

Lee was right there to scoop up the ball with 28 seconds to play to seal the victory.

"What was crazy, Anthony told me before we went out there, he said, 'I'm going to cause a fumble, and I want you to pick it up and run it back,' which was funny," Ware said. "So all right, cool. 'Now vice versa, if I make a fumble, I want you to pick it up.' Ended up he made the fumble, Sean Lee picks it up. I was like, 'Hey, you made the fumble I didn't pick it up.' But it won the game."

When the final buzzer sounded, there was Jason Garrett with a wide smile, hugging Spencer.

These Cowboys are nicked up, underestimated and maybe forgotten in the NFC East.

We're not going to push them to the elite of the NFC yet -- that's Green Bay and New Orleans -- but Sunday afternoon versus the Lions will tell a lot about this Cowboys team.

The defense will have plenty to say.

On Monday night, three offensive playmakers -- Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Felix Jones -- played hurt. Center Phil Costa was getting cussed out by the quarterback for some bad snaps. It seemed everything was going against the Cowboys' offense, which was doing just enough to score three points a little at a time.

But there was Ryan's defense, making him proud with the game on the line.

"It's a team thing; that's how we carry ourselves," Mike Jenkins said. "It's not like we think one-minded: 'We're the defense, we got to control the game.' The offense go out there, they help us on certain games, and we help them on certain games. And in this situation, it was one of those games where we came through. It's a team game, and at the end of the day, we need W's."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.